With good reason, Coach Tim Brewster said Monday. “It’s a SEC ball game, and we’re going to play our starters. Those guys are proven, experienced players in SEC play.” It showed on the stat sheet as Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark, and Chris Smith accounted for 17 of the 18 receptions by true wideouts. Robert Johnson had the other for his unit, and a nifty 19-yarder it was for the sophomore.
But Jameon Lewis, the backup to slot-starter Bumphis, was on the field for a handful of offensive plays as well as normal return-team duty. Joe Morrow did not get in the game. Nor for that matter did junior veteran Ricco Sanders, though senior Brandon Heavens did participate for at least a few snaps. The natural questions regarded those underclassmen.
“We want to obviously develop our younger players, I’d like for them to see more snaps and they will as we move forward,” Brewster said. “But again these are games that are extremely meaningful and there is an extremely high trust factor with the veteran guys. The younger guys have to develop and build that trust factor in SEC games.”
The rest of the receptions went to running backs or tight ends, including FB Adrian Marcus’ catch and ten-yard scamper for The Opening touchdown. And what might have been the day’s slickest reception was by RB LaDarius Perkins, when he bounced out of the backfield as QB Tyler Russell was blitzed for a perfect, soft lob caught one step ahead of an already-beaten linebacker. Perkins has shown what he can do in hot-routes for years, as Ole Miss can attest.
Still Brewster wants his specific players to take some pressure off both the backs and the passer and balance the entire offense. “In SEC games we’re going to have to throw and catch the ball to win. People can out-number the running game,” he said.
“And this football team, this offense depends on the wide receivers to run routes, get open, and catch the ball, make plays. Particularly on third down. We were much-improved on third down against Kentucky, I thought our guys had a solid performance. But again, we’re counted on to make plays.”
WELCOME BACK: Or in the case of Brewster and Malcolm Johnson, hello. True, the wideouts coach met the injured tight end back in August. But if all goes to plan Saturday this will be the first time Brewster can watch Johnson play first-hand.
And he can’t wait for what the sophomore, a converted wide receiver, may bring to the gameplan. Not to mention find out if, as teammates agree, Johnson has the best hands on the ball club. “Malcolm Johnson is an extremely gifted tight end. He’s very talented in the pass game, he’s a physical guy in the run game. He’s certainly going to help us. Marcus Green has done a nice job, we’ve got four tight ends now that can help us win. And going into SEC play that’s certainly going to be positive for us.
“But I’m excited to see Malcolm play, I’ve watched him practice and seen him do some things. He is a vertical threat, and he can horizontally stretch the field. There’s a lot of things he can do for us offensively.”
TOBIAS TIME: By contrast Tobias Smith has not done much for the offense since beating Auburn. This was by play of course. Coach Dan Mullen admitted using the senior right guard for two-thirds of that key early game was too soon and meant Smith sitting out a while.
A lengthy while it turned out. “He had three weeks off,” Coach John Hevesy said. “So it was no different than fall camp when he didn’t do much. I think the biggest thing is getting back to the speed of the game.”
Which is what Mississippi State tried after its open date by reactivating Smith. The twist at Kentucky was Smith didn’t start, as he had the year’s first two contests. Justin Malone opened for a third-straight game and the offense scored on an impressive long drive with him at right guard. But on the second series there was #67 taking his old place.
Smith also got in another first-quarter series. And then took off both his helmet and the day with Malone working the rest of the way. Hevesy figures the senior got 15 to 16 total snaps in two shifts. “He did great. That’s just what I wanted him to do.
“I wanted him to get some plays in just because he hasn’t played in a couple of weeks, before we get into the rest of the season. You know, to get back in there and play live so it’s not going to be a shock coming into any other game.”
One might think a fifth-year senior wouldn’t be shocked by anything at this point. Yet three weeks of watching really did dull Smith’s sense of timing, Hevesy thought. And, “He was up in the office just saying the same thing,” reported the coach. “There is rust that comes in there just from the speed of the game that you can’t simulate in practice. He has to get used to that.”
TAKING AND MAKING SHOTS: Now that he has a refreshed sense of game-speed, Smith should be ready for a lot more work in this pivotal matchup with Tennessee. The Volunteers are not among the league’s leaders in sacking quarterbacks; they have one sack in two SEC games and six total, lowest in this week’s conference count. The Bulldog defense oughtn’t feel so superior though with just eight baggings all year themselves.
Contrariwise, State has allowed just three official sacks through five games. Yet the growing concern is how much contact Russell is absorbing after unloading. Closer inspection shows many of the apparent hits taken by Russell don’t look so bad on second viewing. In fact the quarterback has shown a knack for rolling with the punches and going down soft, relatively speaking.
Still no offense likes seeing their quarterback put on the ground. But is there a choice? State is committed to multiple receiver sets including both the half- and full-backs, leaving no extra blockers. And Russell is holding the ball a tick or two longer than might be absolutely necessary to—hopefully—have his targets come really open. So as Hevesy said, it is a bit of both the blocking scheme and passing plan producing the quarterback contact. Such as at Kentucky.
“I think there was a play where they were bringing eight, and it was a five-man protection. So unless I can get another player I don’t know what I’m going to do! That’s the great thing about Tyler. He knows what is coming. So he’s sitting there to make the throw and move the chains and do what we have to do.
“There are times they are going to bring more than you’ve got, so you get what you can; get rid of that ball. The great thing he does, he sits in there and takes that shot…but he gets rid of the ball, too, and completes it. That’s a bonus to him.”
Hevesy also gives his blockers a few bonus points for maturing ahead of some schedules. OC Dillon Day and LT Blaine Clausell were forced into starting roles last year by injuries. Now they are seasoned sophomores…but still sophomores in the SEC about to face a much better grade of defensive front than seen so far. For that matter Hevesy points out how old Dog Smith really doesn’t have many college starts with his long injury history. This doesn’t cut them any credit.
“I told them there is no excuse, we have to mature faster. We have to see all the things we’re going to see on film and correct those mistakes quick.”
ACTIVATED AND ACTIVE: After missing all four September games, P.J. Jones returned from his unspecified suspension to play at Kentucky. And to start, as an ‘end’ in the opening package of three big linemen as Jones and Kaleb Eulls flanked DT Josh Boyd. The 3-4 sort of set was a good matchup for Wildcat blocking as it turned out, though Jones did not record a tackle. His own alternate, Preston Smith, got three of them with a sack.
Coordinator and line coach Chris Wilson welcomed getting a veteran down-lineman back. “It gave us more depth and another option, which allowed us to play more packages. So the depth is really big because as we go through this stretch the depth will be key in the fourth quarter.”
Wilson has been able to get results so far using minimal blitzing and for that matter minimal blitzers. In the last two games and even for much of the frustrating evening at Troy, the Bulldogs stuck to rushing just the three or four down-linemen with an occasional assist from a linebacker or safety. One result has been just eight sacked quarterbacks in five wins. The coordinator is not concerned about totals, though Wilson did enjoy picking up three of those sacks against Kentucky’s freshmen quarterbacks.
“It was fun to see our guys play coverage and just three-down rushers,” he said. Of course through four games the Bulldogs were doing better than sacking quarterbacks, they were intercepting passes. There were no picks last Saturday but this shouldn’t become any trend. Nor, Wilson said, will this defense suddenly turn into an all-out blitzing bunch even as they prepare to face superb slinger Tyler Bray.
“What you don’t ever do is jeopardize your defense. So we have to take it week-by-week and get the right people in there.” Then again Bray has burned many an excellent SEC defender. Wilson’s goal is not presenting Tennessee and their quarterback with a consistent scheme to figure out.
“Show him a lot of different looks. Let him see a lot of different pressures. Drop ten with one guy rushing!” OK, Wilson was joking there. Probably. But if he thought it might work… “Just be multiple, because a guy like him has seen just about everything. If you show him too much of anything, you’ll be sad.”
At the same time even the coordinator charged with containing Tennessee’s aggressive attack is eager to watch the game and many specific matchups play out. Or as Wilson said, “It’s going to be pro football players on pro football players!” in the competitions of Vol receivers and Bulldog cornerbacks and safeties. “That’s the fun part. I say that, that is the SEC and if you’re one of those guys this is what you look forward to. And we as coaches are excited too because this is why you play SEC football.”